By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Even a small rise in the world’s sea levels, predicted as a result of global warming, could make environmental refugees of some 56 million people in developing countries, a World Bank economist said on Tuesday.
If seas rise as little as 39 inches (1 metre) this century, as forecast in some scientific models, one-fourth of the heavily populated Nile Delta in Egypt would be underwater, said Susmita Dasgupta, author of a report on the impact of sea level rise on developing countries.
Coastal Vietnam would also be severely affected, Dasgupta said at a briefing, as would Mauritania, Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas and Benin.
A sea level rise of 39 inches (1 metre) would turn about 56 million people in 84 developing countries into refugees, Dasgupta said.
"Knowing which countries will be most affected could allow better targeting of scarce available resources and could spur vulnerable nations to develop national adaptation plans now and avoid big losses later," Dasgupta said.
Adaptation plans include heading for higher ground and building dams to keep the water out.
She cited a Feb. 2 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a consensus document crafted by hundreds of scientists and policy makers, which said sea levels will keep rising for centuries even if greenhouse gas concentrations -- blamed for spurring global warming -- were stabilized now.
She also noted that global average sea levels rose more rapidly from 1993 to 2003 than they did from 1961 through 2003, which was faster than climate models projected. By 2100, Dasgupta said, sea levels are projected to rise 1.6 feet to 4.6 feet (0.5 metre to 1.4 metre) above 1990 levels.
With every additional 39 inch (1 metre) rise in sea level, consequences for specific areas can be calculated, she said:
-- A a 6.6 foot (2 metre) rise would inundate 22 percent of Mexico’s wetlands.
-- A 9.8 foot (3 metre) rise would hit 17 percent of Mauritania’s gross domestic product.
-- A 13 foot (4 metre) rise would submerge 35 percent of Vietnam’s urban areas.
-- a 16.4 foot (5 metre) rise would force 16.7 million people in Bangladesh to become refugees.
Even the most extreme scenarios should be considered, she said, because of the possibility that the thick ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica could disintegrate as the world warms.
The loss of the Greenland ice sheet alone would raise sea level by nearly 23 feet (7 metres), Dasgupta’s report said.